In an automobile, ball joints are spherical bearings that connect the control arms to the steering knuckles. They are used on virtually every automobile made  and work similarly to the ball-and-socket design of the human hip joint.
A ball joint consists of a bearing stud and socket enclosed in a casing; all these parts are made of steel. The bearing stud is tapered and threaded, and fits into a tapered hole in the steering knuckle. A protective encasing prevents dirt from getting into the joint assembly. Usually, this is a rubber-like boot that allows movement and expansion of lubricant. Motion-control ball joints tend to be retained with an internal spring, which helps to prevent vibration problems in the linkage.
The "offset" ball joint provides means of movement in systems where thermal expansion and contraction, shock, seismic motion, and torsional motions, and forces are present.
A ball joint is used for allowing free movement in two planes at the same time, including rotating in those planes. Combining two such joints with control arms enables motion in all three planes, allowing the front end of an automobile to be steered and a spring and shock (damper) suspension to make the ride comfortable.
Unlike a kingpin suspension, this allows for adjusting the camber and caster of the wheel suspension. Both systems allow adjustment of the toe angle. This ability to fine-tune the suspension allows manufacturers to make the automobile more stable and easier to steer, compared to the older kingpin style suspension. The smoother ride also increases tire tread life, since the ball-joint suspension allows the vehicle to be adjusted to track in a level fashion.
On modern vehicles, ball joints are the pivot between the wheels and the suspension of an automobile. They are today almost universally used in the front suspension, having replaced the kingpin/linkpin arrangement, but can also be found in the rear suspension of a few higher-performance autos. Ball joints play a critical role in the safe operation of an automobile's steering and suspension.
In automobile suspension, the two ball joints are called the "upper ball joint" and "lower ball joint". Lower ball joints are typically larger and wear out faster as the entire front end weight rests solely upon them.
Unlike a kingpin, which requires an assembly in the center of the wheel in order to pivot, joints connect to the upper and lower end of the spindle (steering knuckle), to the control arms. This leaves the center section open to allow the use of front-wheel drive. Older kingpin designs can only be used in a rear-wheel-drive configuration.
Sealed ball joints do not require lubrication as they are "lubed for life". Formerly most ball joints had grease fitting (sometimes called a grease zerk) and were designed for periodic addition of a lubricant, however almost all modern cars use sealed ball joints to minimise maintenance requirements. The lubricant was usually a very high-viscosity lubricant. It is commonly believed that standard ball joints will outlive sealed ones because eventually the seal will break, causing the joint to dry out and rust. Additionally, the act of adding new lubricant pushes out old and dry lubricant, extending the life of the joint. This was supposed to be done at intervals of 1000 to 2000 miles on many vehicles, which is incompatible with the service interval on modern cars, often 12000 miles or more, and in any case was rarely attended to by owners, resulting in severe wear and possible ball joint failure, which can result in serious accidents. For this reason, almost all ball joints on modern European or Far Eastern cars are the sealed for life type.
Spherical rolling joint
A spherical rolling joint is a high-precision ball joint consisting of a spherical outer and inner race separated by ball bearings. The ball bearings are housed in a spherical retainer and roll along both the inner and outer surfaces. This design allows the joint to have very low friction while maintaining a large range of motion and backlash as low as 1 µm. SRJs are often used in parallel robotics applications like a Stewart platform, where high rigidity and low backlash are essential.
Most SRJs are designed with an offset housing, allowing for higher compressive loads in a smaller space. Alternatively, the joint can be assembled backwards for higher tensile load capability but less range of motion.
An alternative to the SJR is the universal joint, which consists of two revolute joints. By using spherical rolling joints instead of universal, designers can reduce the number of joints to achieve the same result. Using a spherical joint as opposed to a universal joint also eliminates the problematic possibility of a kinematic singularity. Plain spherical bearings can be used in place of SRJs at the cost of increased friction, but offer an opportunity to preload the joint further.
While there is no exact lifespan that can be put on sealed ball joints, they can fail as early as 80,000 miles (130,000 km) in modern vehicles, and much sooner in older vehicles. Signs of a failing ball joint start with a clicking, popping or snapping sound when the wheel is turned and eventually turn into a squeaking sound at the end of a stop, when the gas pedal is used and/or also when hitting bumps. Another symptom could be 'thud' noises coming from front suspension when going over bumps. Dry ball joints have dramatically increased friction and can cause the steering to stick or be more difficult.
If a ball joint fails, the results can be dangerous as the wheel's angle becomes unconstrained, causing loss of control. Because the tire will be at an unintended angle, the vehicle will come to an abrupt halt, damaging the tires. Also, during failure, debris can damage other parts of the vehicle.
While in automotive parlance the term "ball joint" usually refers to the primary ball joint connections at the ends of the control arms, this type of joint is used in other parts as well, including tie rod ends. In these other applications, they are typically called tie rod ends or, when they are an inner tie rod end on a rack-and-pinion steering system, they are called inner socket assemblies. These joints are also used in a number of other non-automotive applications, from the joints of dolls to other mechanical linkages for a variety of devices, or any place where a degree of rotation in movement is desired.
- Rod end bearing (heim joint)
- Shaker tilting chair for one of the earliest patented applications of the technology
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